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Philosophy Re: More on 3.4

From: Charles McCathieNevile <charles@w3.org>
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2001 08:37:46 -0400 (EDT)
To: Matt May <mcmay@bestkungfu.com>
cc: <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
Message-ID: <Pine.LNX.4.30.0107300616430.27211-100000@tux.w3.org>
I have responded to this in alternating paragraphs. It is about philosophy,
which is important in the long run but may or may not be a distraction in the
short term. Anyway, I think it is important enough to keep talking about it -
taking a step back from the details is painful and slow, but ultimately
useful for me nearly always. Anyway here it is, in the form of alternating
paragraphs from Matt and my responses:

On Sun, 29 Jul 2001, Matt May wrote:

  I need to get a little philosophical here to describe (I hope) precisely the
  kind of rathole this constant debate is dragging us into. The issue I have
  with 3.4 which precedes all others is that we are not justified in telling
  authors we know more about their content than they do. This is an
  ill-conceived assumption which will backfire if it makes its way out to
I am going to try and show that we are not justified in telling authors we
know anything about their content, but that we do not need to in order to
tell them how  to express it in a way more useful to more people.
  The reason the W3C has authority to produce documents such as WCAG (and have
  an audience) is as a result of technical leadership. It produces the
  protocols and formats, and for that it has the right to state
  authoritatively how they are used.
I don't agree. I think W3C can produce WCAG is that it gathers a number of
experts in different areas of accessibility, and those experts work hard to
figure out how to useWeb technologies in order to make content accessible.
  What the W3C does _not_ have the authority to declare is what people are to
  say and how they should say it.
W3C does not attempt to say anything about what people should or shouldn't
say. It does, through WCAG, attempt to provide some guidance about how to
ensure that whatever it is being said can be understood by as many people as
possible, regardless of disability.
  I don't object to the presence of Guideline 3. (In fact, I think it might be
  better placed above Guideline 2, since most interaction is done after
  comprehension...) It is, however, the least technical and the least
  normative of the four, and that's no accident...
I think the reason it is no accident is in fact that it is the area we have
done the least actual work on trying to set technical requirements for, and
the one where it has been hardest (this is my personal opinion of my
experience) to actually get any of the work that we have done incorporated
into any of our documents.
  ...The full cycle of
  comprehension is dependent on:

  - The domain knowledge of the author (that is, the originator/communicator
  of the message);
  - The skills and tools of the author to craft the message;
  - The medium of communication; and
  - The skills and tools of the recipient to interpret the message as
  accurately as possible.
  What we need to do is to rely on the author's knowledge of the chosen
  subject matter and ability to communicate it as effectively as s/he is able.
  To that end, we can suggest best practices outside of technology to augment
  that knowledge (such as "write clearly and simply" and "emphasize
  structure"). We can even suggest to them that images or other media can be
  beneficial for important concepts.
In other words, we can suggest methods such as taking advantage of technology
(for example a screenreader), doing things that are more or less technology
independent (such as writing styles), or things that blend the two (using a
tool to help analyse an image and produce some other representation to be
cleaned up by the author).
  It is completely nonsensical, however, to create blanket requirements
  respecting the clarity of a message relative to the number of images
  present, FOG index, or any other ratio...
  ...Comprehension is neither reliable
  nor quantifiable. If it were, there would be no need for tests in school,
  and anyway, if one were held, everyone would have perfect scores.
If comprehension could not be reliably quantified (not perfectly, just
reliably) then there would have been no point to testing in schools, but it
seems that most of the schools I went to and most people I meet believe that
isn't the case.
  ...It is,
  alas, not that way. No words-to-pictures (or, for that matter,
  words-to-anything) algorithm makes all content quantifiably clearer, or more
  universally understandable.
This is a big claim. A really big claim. Perhaps it is correct, but I think
it is also irrelevant to the real world. Any algorithm that can make some
kind of content almost universally more accessible is probably a win for us,
and I think there are some algorithms that can be defined well enough to be
useful in the guidelines. (I have proposed 3 now).
  3.4 should acknowledge, at least implicitly, that its effect is limited to
  the ability of the author to communicate using non-textual means. It should
  be there to draw an author's attention to another means of making a point to
  ...What we need not to do is to turn this into anything more than a
  "where appropriate".
I don't think so. I think that we need to look for ways that we can actually
lift the technical level of this to something that can be tested, and provide
some more useful guidance in terms of specifics. I also believe that this is
possible. I don't think we are yet at the stage, even with all the
suggestions I have seen, where we can replace this general advice checkpoint,
but I think we can certainly augment it usefully.
  ...It is an untenable position to say we're sure that for
  all content, any image you produce, irrespective of quality or subjective
  relevance, is better than none....
  ...We _must_ respect the role of the author if
  we expect to influence authors.
Agreed. We must consider the role of tools, and we must remember that there
may be user needs that not every author is good enough to meet on their own.
(for example, some people have great difficulty writing in a way that people
can understand. They don't have a right to have people understand everything
they write, any more than a person who cannot sing has a right to have
everyone appreciate their lack of melody).
  I feel I've already made all the points I need to make regarding content in
  the web design process, as well as the complexity of communicating messages
  visually. Frankly, the messages I've seen regarding, say, the insufficiency
  of verbal communication with abstract art fail to sway me. In fact, they
  only make me more steadfast in my position: the author's grasp of her or his
  own subject matter is and should be the determining factor in offering
  illustrations. The author doesn't care what the W3C says about content, nor
  should s/he.
The author's grasp of their content, but further their ability to create or
find content in different forms, will be major factors in whether or not they
manage to make their message accessible to everyone. The advice of those who
are working with people who have difficulty reading seems to be fairly
consistent that graphic representation will help them. It is clear that bad
graphics are not helpful to many people, and that graphics without text is
not helpful to lots of people. We need to remember those as we go forwards
with this. But we don't need to stop working here yet either.


Received on Monday, 30 July 2001 08:37:47 UTC

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